After three months mountain biking in Switzerland, apart from mind blowing vistas and a serious reduction in cellulite, what amazes me the most is the incredible variety of trails on offer. There’re riding options for all levels of fitness and ability, from reviving long forgotten muscles to hike-a-bike sessions good enough for a place in the Highland Games!
Boasting over 8’000km of interconnected mountain bike routes with an equally impressive public transport network, it’s not surprising that Switzerland is one of the world’s top mountain bike destinations. Unlike other countries, trails here are open to hikers, horse riders, mountain bikers and e-bikers alike. However, the Alps can be a pretty rough place to ride with climbs and descents tough enough to test even the best of riders. That’s where route planning comes in.
MTB Trails - Ski Resorts
Not surprisingly, there’s a huge difference between riding mountain bike trails inside and outside the management of a ski resort. The biggest differences are terrain, trail design and maintenance. For example ski resorts in Graubunden offer some of the most breathtaking alpine biking trails I’ve ever experienced with just enough natural features to turn a would be battle trail into massive smiles and whosh riding heaven. More importantly however, funds are invested in trail maintenance, keeping trails safe to ride and the elements at bay.
Higher levels of organisation and convenience are hard to imagine. For example at the tourist office in Lenzerheide, not only can you find your nearest ‘bike hotel’, bike rental options and e-bike routes, you can also get the low down on trail conditions – which ones still have snow fields etc. At the ski lift, help is to hand to load your bike, lift stations have bike washes, there are shuttle buses, bike shops, e-MTB charging stations en route, not to mention MTB guides, skills courses and mountain bike events. Some major resorts even discount the lift pass and if you’re lucky enough to be staying in Davos-Klosters, then the lift pass is free with your accommodation!
When it comes to route planning, resorts offer plenty of information. Routes maps are handed out like ski maps and include information such as ascent, elevation profile, distance, estimated duration and a recommended level of skill and fitness (slightly subjective!). In Graubunden, the tourist office runs a dedicated mountain bike division called Herbert Bike (recognise the logo from the Danny MacAskill vid?). There you can find route recommendations, comprehensive trail information together with GPX files that are free to download. Brilliant!
A word of advice, a nominal four hour tour can easily take all day and leave you knackered the day after. No matter how fit you are, pace yourself, check out your e-bike options, ride prepared and if you’re a tinsy bit unsure, speak to or ride with a local mountain bike guide.
MTB Trails - Outside the Ski Resorts
If you’ve already ridden the resort trails and are seeking to design your own multi-day riding adventure, Switzerland is possibly the safest place in the world to do it. There’s a bit of planning work and a fair amount of risk involved. The closest comparison I can think of is excursion skiing, only it’s less weather dependent and the risk of getting lost is considerably lower. But in terms of skills and fitness, there really are no shortcuts. In the event things do go wrong, the Swiss mountains are riddled with fire roads. Rarely are you far from help. Make sure your mountain bike travel insurance covers heli-rescue services like Rega.
Switzerland has 65,000 kilometres of waymarked trails primarily intended for hikers. If you’re looking for epic routes, the French speaking canton of Valais and the German speaking canton of Graubunden are unrivalled. If you’ve never ridden outside the comfort of a ski resort, start off with a Swiss Mobility route.
Swiss Mobility’s national, regional and local mountain bike routes are described on the Swiss Mobility website. Every route comes with a comprehensive description in English, all the route parameters and an elevation profile to help decide if the route is right for you.
Swiss Mobility routes are signposted on the trail with a mountain bike symbol or a symbol with route number. Bear in mind this does not imply exclusivity or that the route has been adapted for mountain biking. Always expect hike-a-bike sections, exposure and places where the only way down might be on foot.
For navigation I’ve been using Garmin’s Edge 130 which does well on accuracy however, the battery does have a tendency to conk out after four hours. Fortunately trails in Switzerland are astonishingly well signposted and dependably marked with a red and white stripe. You’re hard pressed to end up lost. That said, carry a paper map and compass and always make sure you know where you are.
Another important point, trail conditions can change rapidly. Unlike back in the UK, rain in the Alps, particularly during the summer months can come down in monsoon quantities carrying trees, rocks and boulders heavy enough to destroy trails, roads and sometimes sections of mountain. Whilst repairs are usually addressed within a few weeks, trail access is never guaranteed. You might find MTB trail condition reports on Trail Forks but essentially, anything’s possible.
Besides paper maps and waymarked trails, Swiss Mobility offers an outstanding online mapping and routing resource. In addition to being able to design your own route and download the GPX file, one of the features I enjoy most is the ability to highlight mountain huts and refuges – ideal for multi-day ride planning. Online maps are accessible for free but to plot a route, analyse the route elevation profile and download the track there is a registration process and a small fee to pay. Similar in some ways to the online maps produced by Ordnance Survey but dare I say, even better (please don’t shoot me!).
In addition to Herbert Bike I also found trail resources such as Ride and Trail Devils quite useful. Bear in mind, videos tend to show just the highlights and as with photographs and clips from pro-riders, rough trails appear smooth and steep descents a doddle. If you can find trail reviews from different riders, all the better.
Outside the comfort of a ski resort, trails are either gravel fire / access roads, trails designed to bring cows to pasture or trails for hikers. Distance, ascent and grade are important in route planning but essentially the terrain determines how long and how difficult the ride will be. Time estimates for ascents calculated by Swiss Mobility’s routing tool are pretty reliable on gravel terrain i.e. fire / access roads. As the terrain and condition of ‘hiking’ trails varies massively, time estimates for ascents should be considered conservative. As a general rule, it’s always reasonable to climb fire roads up to a grade of 10% and descend most trails up to a maximum of 30%.
As an average rider (good fitness, good ability, riding a couple of hours twice a week) on a continuous climb at 10% on loose gravel, I happily pedal for 1-2 hours whereas on an alpine trail, after an hour of pedaling, pushing and hiking I am more or less destroyed. Outside the management of ski resorts, some trails are being adapted for mountain biking. Look out for anything that mentions ‘uphill flow’, especially if you’re thinking of riding with an e-bike.
For extended climbs over 10km I try to pick a route via an access road to an alp, of which there are literally thousands. The grade and terrain is usually drivable and therefore rideable. You can check the grade with a quick calculation from the elevation profile on Swiss Mobility but bear in mind, rough terrain can still be an issue, even on a fire road. One last point on the climbs – for me a short section of hike-a-bike will always trump a long section of pushing.
When it comes to downhill, there is a grade limit of around 30%. A couple of kilometers not being able to let go of the breaks on rough terrain feels more like survival to me than fun. Many hiking trails exceed 30%. When planning a route on trails not marked for mountain biking, keep steep descents short. Tired muscles on trails with exposure isn’t great. Hike-a-bike works fine upwards, not so fine downwards. The bike can always be led down on its back wheel but with good planning, it can be avoided.
As an average rider, an ideal day ride in the Alps is between 4-5 hours of riding plus breaks (6-7 hours in total). An ideal total ascent is between 1000m-1400m coupled with a distance of around 30km, give or take 5km. On a multi-day tour, more distance can be covered with less ascent and vice versa, depending on the terrain and trail conditions. If those are unknown, I tend to reduce the distance and keep the ascent under 1000m.
Whether you’re looking for trail wilderness or the comfort and convenience of a ski resort, when it comes to mountain biking, Swiss trails are nothing short of incredible. For more information about mountain biking in Switzerland, check out Switzerland’s tourism board or if you’d like to know more about my experiences riding the Swiss Alps, contact me on FB. Happy route planning!